Cameron will forever be tainted by the Brexit horror story

Published by The i paper (16th September, 2019)

Every now and then I am struck by the stench of our putrefying politics. It hit me last week when clicking on the BBC website to see a news lead that the prime minister had denied lying to The Queen over his suspension of parliament. Even just a few weeks earlier, during the miserable administration of Theresa May, this story would have seemed outlandish. But not now.

The Brexit shock troops have seized power, driven out their own moderates, intensified national divisions and challenged the democracy they claim to be saving. So this is not the ideal moment for the architect of this chaos to step forward asking people to buy his memoirs.

A report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London last week highlighted our polarisation after David Cameron’s decision to call that daft referendum on European Union membership, with identities on this single issue running far deeper than traditional party divisions. Almost half of voters identify ‘very strongly’ with their side on Brexit compared with fewer than one in ten so strongly aligned with a party. They see their foes as ‘selfish’, with growing reluctance to socialise across this great divide cleaving Britain.

Before continuing, I should remind readers that I informally advised Cameron in his early efforts to liberalise his party, then worked briefly as his speechwriter for the 2010 election. I met him soon after he entered Westminster and liked him. He was relaxed on social issues for a Tory at the time, open to fresh ideas and we bonded as fathers of children with profound disabilities. He asked me to be his first spin doctor after becoming leader, then recanted when I said I would publicly oppose any hostility to migration.

He could have been a fine prime minister if the financial crisis had not swept away an optimistic agenda that suited his character. Instead politics became darker, public discontent grew and he steered us into disaster.

Cameron will forever and deservedly be damned by Brexit. He admits this failure in his book, saying his campaign flopped and he feels depressed by the consequent fissures afflicting our country. Yet still he insists he had to call the referendum. This is wrong. Europe was a minor electoral issue until inflamed by the vote. It was a major cause only for a small band of right-wing headbangers and their cheerleaders in the press who tormented successive prime ministers.

It is to Cameron’s shame that instead of confronting them, as he did on same-sex marriage and initially on the environment, he appeased them and ultimately delivered the country into their hands when spooked by Ukip’s surge.

This always struck me as strange. I saw early on his relish for winding up the right to accentuate his centrism. Yet from the time he ran for leadership, pledging to pull out of the main centre-right grouping in Brussels, he failed to properly fight his nationalist fringe despite telling his party to stop banging on about Europe.

This led to the painful irony of a vote designed to defeat his rebels and unite his party that ended up unpicking much of his better work. It has turned the Tories into a nasty party of English nationalists, repellent to moderates and younger generations – as shown again by the defection of the admirable MP Sam Gyimah.

Arrogance played a role in his referendum nightmare, together with an expectation he would be constrained by coalition after the 2015 election that was dashed by unexpected triumph.

This is a personal tragedy for a decent man who, for all the sneers and setbacks, sought to reshape a party stuck in the past, skilfully steered a path through coalition politics, salvaged the economy and shattered his Labour rivals. But for all the interesting bits in his biography – his take on treacherous friends, his moving section on his late son, his confession of drug-taking that shows again the hypocrisy of prohibition – the Brexit catastrophe blots out everything else.

Who knows how this horror story will end? Yet there are two lessons to draw from Cameron’s re-appearance on the stage.

First, an unfashionable one: the message of his much-mocked Big Society is needed more than ever. This hazy concept was wrecked after becoming entwined with austerity. But at root it reflected a positive desire to drive power down to local communities, informed by a sense that society needed stronger bonds. This was a reaction to the rampant individualism inspired by Thatcherism. Such a need has been reinforced by social media, the slashing of local authority budgets and – again ironically – by the dreadful impact of his decision to hold that referendum.

Second, we must reflect on the nature of our parliamentary politics that leads to dire decisions and routinely ignores evidence (such as continuing with drug prohibition). Cameron saw himself as the heir to Tony Blair — and certainly one calamitous issue overshadows both their periods in power.

Blair’s idiotic war in Iraq devastated the Middle East and fuelled Islamic extremism, while his Tory successor detonated an explosion in his own nation. We need to dig down deep into the causes of such grotesque follies, which embrace a complex fusion of shallow leadership, inadequate accountability, toxic tribal loyalties and blinkered herd mentality.

In one revealing section of his biography, my former boss admits he suffered from ‘a weakness for going with the crowd, even when the crowd was heading in the wrong direction.’

He was talking about his time smoking hash as a teenager. Yet could any phrase better encapsulate how he ruined his premiership by failing to stand firm against the Eurosceptic tide? Indeed, it explains much that remains so wrong at Westminster as populism rages, divisions grow and Britain still grapples with the tragic legacy of Cameron’s tainted leadership.

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